Dear fellow travellers
We are undecided whether we should head for Jupiter or Saturn. Mind you, we’ve heard that Venus might be better at this time of year.
We are busy planning journeys as we research the next edition of our book Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide. That 17th edition of the book won’t be out for some time yet, but we are already working on it. We’ll certainly include a new route to Romania, but the question is whether it should stop in Bucharest or extend east to the Black Sea coast. And that raises the cosmic question.
For along the Romanian coast south of Constanta, there’s a string of planetary resorts developed in the 1960s and 1970s to meet demand for budget holidays for workers and their families. There’s Neptun and Jupiter to the north of Cape Aurora; south of that gentle cape towards the Bulgarian border are Venus and Saturn.
These purpose-built holiday resorts catered primarily to domestic tourism, with most of the holidaymakers relying on all-inclusive vouchers which covered travel to the coast, accommodation in a fairly basic hotel and some meals. But there were also foreigners who made tracks for the Romanian coast, the great majority of them coming from Warsaw Pact countries. The new resorts were much favoured by visitors from landlocked Czechoslovakia, with brochures from the 1970s extolling the merits of the good life on the Romanian coast. And for many Polish tourists, the Romanian coast was an attractive alternative to the much cooler Baltic, encouraging many to favour Saturn over Sopot.
The political changes of 1989 and thereafter fundamentally undermined the tourist economy of these coastal resorts in south-east Romania. The voucher holiday all but disappeared, although it’s had a curious renaissance in modern Romania. In 2015, the Bucharest government introduced a scheme whereby public sector employees gave up holiday bonuses but instead received vouchers for short seaside breaks in one of the country’s ailing resorts.
Jupiter, Saturn and the other coastal resorts south of Constanta offer more than just serried ranks of mediocre hotels. These new-build schemes were not the place for bold architectural experiments, but they did attract many decent architects. Cezar Lazarescu’s Casino complex in Mangalia was an assertive modernist essay by the architect behind many showpiece projects of the era; it still stands today.
Five or six decades ago, Romania had a sense of building the future and many citizens were eager to dance the night away in Venus or just lie on the beach at Saturn. Hotel names like Peace and Progress hinted of a better world. Yet many designs from the 1960s and 1970s haven’t stood the test of time, and a number of the leading hotels from that period have been abandoned or now have entire wings mothballed.
There was a spell in the 1990s when visitors from former Soviet republics (like Moldova or Ukraine) gave a boost to the Romanian coastal economy, and there was new investment in places like Jupiter and Saturn. But travel trends changed and today it’s a very rare foreign visitor to Romania who makes a detour to explore the planetary resorts.
Where those resort hotels are still trading, the socialist-era names have been changed. Aida and Tosca are more in vogue today. But we’ll not be expecting anything operatic. Whether we opt for Jupiter, Venus, or another of the resorts on that coastal strip, it’ll be a chance to read history through buildings and recall the days when sun, sea and socialism made natural partners.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)